Dan Driessen stands far down the left-field foul line, surveying what's left of the Cincinnati Reds.
"I still don't know all my teammates' names," said the 10th-season first baseman. "I keep hearing echoes."
Driessen sometimes imagines he hears Ken Griffey's high-pitched, mischievous laugh or George Foster's stilted, self-improved grammar. "When Griffey and I first came to camp here in '71, I cooked for him," said Driessen. "Rice and pork chops."
Driessen is used to ghosts and echoes. Tony Perez, Pete Rose, Joe Morgan, Cesar Geronimo and now Foster and Griffey are gone. Only Johnny Bench, Dave Concepcion and Driessen are left from the 1976 world champions--one of the best lineups in history.
Did the Reds have the money to keep their stars?
"Hell, yes," said Driessen. "We're at or near the top in attendance every year. There's got to be some money somewhere. They just don't want to spend it. If you own the place, I guess you can do what you want. But it's hard to see guys like that go. I miss 'em."
Still, by savvy, penuriousness and luck, the Reds have kept both their profits and their pride intact. And now, the most dramatic current experiment in baseball is being cooked up in the Reds' low-budget lab.
Baseball's last conscientious objectors live here. As far as the Reds are concerned, baseball has changed little, never will. Cincy management thinks the other 25 teams in baseball are insane; free-agent crazed. And they're going to prove it.
The Reds' project is to demonstrate that no matter how many stars they lose, they can remain the same--the most consistently excellent team in the National League for the past quarter century.
The Reds believe in concentrating almost entirely on player development--scouting, farm system and instruction. But they've come up with a twist; a partial way out of the free-agent trap. They aren't paying free-agent salaries, but they aren't completely losing their stars, either.
A year before a player becomes a free agent, the Reds ask him where he wants to go. Then, they work out a kind of 50-cents-on-the-dollar trade for him to that rich city.
"We're in a new era. This is how it's going to be from now on," said Manager John McNamara. "A lot of people will be watching us this year, because we're not doing it the way everybody else is. If you satisfy a player's demands on a trade before he becomes a free agent, you can get something in return for him. It's going to be very difficult, the way the money is, to see a player spend his whole career with one team."
Cincinnati's central idea: the organization is essential; the individual is replaceable.
When Perez was traded to Montreal, Driessen replaced him. When Rose left, along came rookie Ray Knight to hit .318. When Morgan left, rookie Ron Oester filled his aging shoes well. The startling result was that, when most thought them moribund, the Reds won a division flag in 1979, then, in '81, had the best won-lost record in the game.
Last year, the Reds' outfield was Foster, Griffey and Dave Collins. All three were lured away by New York money--approximately $18.9 million of it in guaranteed contracts to either the Yankees or Mets (Foster). Now, the Reds' maligned outfield is Cesar Cedeno, Clint Hurdle and Paul Householder.
Ask McNamara how much production will be lost in the transition and he says, "Maybe nothing."
To the Reds, Foster was a great hitter but a bad left fielder and a poor team example with his seldom-sullied uniform. Rather than pay him twice as much money as Concepcion ($900,000) for half as much effort, they traded him to the Mets for Jim Kern, Alex Trevino and a AAA pitching prospect.
Collins, an outfielder with a .276 career average, no arm and and a homer every 120 at bats, was strictly an average player, at best, to the Reds. For him to get an $800,000-a-year salary for three seasons was a joke. So, they let him go to the Yankees with little sense of loss.
As for Griffey, he was a quality player, but not a true star; playing a traditional run-producer's position (right field), he'd driven in 75 runs once in his career. Their AAA kid Householder could do that, at a fraction of the price. So, the Reds traded Griffey to the Yankees for two minor-league pitchers.
What comes next is the sweet part, the real Cincinnati trademark.
Here's how President Dick Wagner played his shell game. Because he had Trevino to catch, he could grant Bench's request to play third base full time. That, in turn, made Knight expendable, so the Reds traded him to Houston for Cedeno, who they think at age 31 still can be a cleanup hitter and center fielder.
Finally, thanks to the pitching insurance they'd gotten from the Yankees in the Griffey trade, the Reds felt they could deal perhaps their best minor-league relief prospect (Scott Brown) to Kansas City for Hurdle.
In making their trades, the Reds sought Foreign Legion types who either had personal problems, bad reputations or were desperate for a chance to play regularly. When Kern, who calls himself "The Emu," in honor of an endangered species, crosses Wagner's path, he salutes. "If I could do two years in the Marines," said Kern, "I can enlist in the Reds."
"How do you like these socks," said Hurdle with a grin, pointing at the Reds' ugly, universally ridiculed, low-top red stockings, the height of baseball antistyle. "And check this out," said Hurdle, showing his Reds-regulation short haircut. "But, they let me keep my wrist (sweat) bands . . .
"They've called Wagner a lot of names," said Hurdle, "but before this year is out, they may be calling him smart."
One insight lies beneath all the Reds' current machinations--the notion that motivation, team morale, sound fundamental coaching and McNamara's excellent and understated managing count for more than fancy reputations and showy stats.
On the day Hurdle reported here, his teammates had put a Foster name card above his locker and a No. 30 jersey (Griffey's number) in his locker. Not until Hurdle started to run out onto the field did he realize it really was Griffey's jersey, right down to the name stitched to the back.
That's the Reds' interesting, if eerie, message. In a sporting society that places enormous value on the individual's uniqueness, Cincinnati presents an antithetical message. The Reds aren't so sure there's much difference at all between Ken Griffey and Clint Hurdle. And, so far, the record bears them out.